I Chapter Five: Anticlimax
January 13, 2525
(Military Calendar) \
Harvest, Epsilon Indi System
"I would like to introduce you to my friend, here!" Captain Ponder proclaimed, holding something up for all of us to see.
I joined my squadmates in squinting and leaning forward to get a better look at what our CO was holding.
In his left hand, the Captain held a bright red, bullet-shaped object.
"Does anyone know what this is?" Ponder waved the object in the air, raising a questioning eyebrow.
Seventy-two blank stares looked back at him.
"This, recruits, is a standard-issue TTR, which stands for 'tactical training round'. Once fired, a proximity fuse contained within this TTR will dissolve the plastic polymer shell if it comes within ten centimeters of any surface at high velocity. When this happens, the TTR will dissolve into a harmless blob of red paint."
A ghost of a grin flickered over my face.
Was Ponder about to send us all off into a game of paintball with real guns?
I think I’m in a wet dream.
Captain Ponder had personally commanded both 1st and 2nd Platoon for about a week, now.
Seven days ago, Byrne and Johnson had mysteriously vanished.
Captain Ponder said they were off on business for the Harvest government, but refused to say anymore.
It didn't add up, but hey; none of us were really keen enough to delve into the matter. A respite from Byrne’s cruelty, however brief, was not something anyone was going to complain about.
"Your training fatigues are made of a special material,” the Captain continued. “When the TTR round makes contact with your fatigues, a chemical reaction will cause the fibers to stiffen. It also delivers an anesthetic which will paralyze the part of your body that was hit. Should the TTR make contact with a vital area of your body, you will wake up in one of Doc Healy’s cots a few hours later. Then you will reflect on what ‘killed’ you."
A chorus of murmurs rose from our ranks as we quietly voiced our respective opinions on this new dimension of training.
Sure, I wasn't really digging the whole getting-knocked-out part, but everything else sounded like a lot of fun.
"You will proceed to the armory and trade in your live ammo for magazines of TTR," Ponder instructed us. "After that, you will report to the forest for your first combat simulation. Does anyone have any questions?"
"How are we going to execute this exercise?" asked Stisen.
"Platoon on platoon," Ponder replied. "The first platoon to eliminate two-thirds of the opposing force wins. Any more questions?”
No one had any.
“Good. You are dismissed.”
We geared up in less than five minutes.
Our eight minute, thirteen second days were long past.
The forest was a three-kilometer march down the Gladsheim Highway. It’s the same one we pass through whenever we run the Beach.
After we left the wheat fields behind, we marched through the forest for a short while. Captain Ponder led us to a gravel path which snaked off into the woods. The path’s entrance was partially obscured by bushes, and there were no signs marking its location.
Anyone driving past probably would miss it.
The gravel path took us deep into the forest to our simulation zone.
The sim zone comprised of two opposing hills, with a small creek winding through the valley in between. Chain link fences surrounded the entire area, forming our boundaries.
Captain Ponder took us to the sim zone’s entrance gate and ordered us into formation.
“I will be observing the exercise from a hidden post in the trees above,” the Captain informed us. “I camouflaged it myself, so I advise you don’t waste any time searching for me. Squad leaders, synch your watches and start the mission clock on my mark.”
Carrol, Stisen, Habel and the other squad leaders raised their watches, waiting for the go-ahead.
“Mark,” said Ponder, pressing the appropriate button on his own watch.
After synchronization was confirmed, First Platoon broke ranks and jogged through the sim zone’s entrance, heading for the far end of the training site, vanishing into the trees.
We took the closer hill and divided into squads, awaiting further instruction.
Stisen and Carrol huddled together with Habel from Charlie Squad, drawing up plans for our upcoming skirmish with Johnson’s recruits.
"What do you think they’re saying?" Ricketts whispered.
Dempsey rolled his eyes. "I’d say they’re exchanging corn muffin recipes," he whispered back. “What the fuck else could they possibly be talking about? Tactics?”
"Don’t be a dick," Ricketts muttered, falling silent once more.
Hadley, the oldest member of our squad—a former constable of around fifty years old—spoke up next. "Dempsey, do us all a favor, would ya?"
"Shut the hell up."
"Quiet," the hiss came from Carrol, freshly returned from the squad-leader powwow. "We move in four."
"What’s the game plan?" Lowell asked.
"When the mission clock hits plus ten minutes, Bravo is moving down the western perimeter," Carrol explained. "We’ll take up positions on the our side of the creek and provide cover for Alpha’s advance. Stisen will be advancing down center with Habel in reserve."
"The center?" Omar echoed in disbelief at first, but the disbelief quickly turned into nonchalance. The broad-shouldered recruit gave a simple shrug. "Better Alpha Squad than us," he said.
None of us could argue with him there.
The seconds ticked by.
We tapped our helmet mics, making sure our SQUADCOM was working before we prepped our weapons.
I slid a magazine of TTR into my M6J carbine, thumbing off the safety and checking the ironsights. Satisfied that everything was in order, I sat back on my haunches, resting my weapon across my knees.
"Lowell, Garris,” Carrol turned to me and Scotty Lowell, “you’re the best shots in the squad. When we're on the move, keep to the rear of our formation. We’re covering Alpha’s advance, but you’ll need to cover us."
“Yes sir,” Lowell and I replied in unison.
Our mission clock arrived at the ten minute mark.
“All squads advance,” Stisen's voice crackled through the COM channel shared by all members of Second Platoon.
That wasn’t necessary. We all knew when to advance. Stisen loved acting like he was the platoon leader.
"Bravo Squad, on me," Carrol instructed us. “Tactical formation. Billings, Worthington, Davis. Fan out and watch our right flank.”
Our squad leader set off into the woods, moving briskly, keeping his head low. We followed his example.
At Carrol's order, Ricketts moved ahead and took point.
"Nothing up here but empty bushes and trees, sir," Ricketts would report back every few minutes.
"Ricketts; maintain radio silence and don't signal back until you reach the creek," Carrol responded.
"I'm already there, sir," Ricketts said.
"What?" Carrol nearly shouted into the SQUADCOM. The squad leader slammed a fist into the air, halting our advance. "Ricketts, pull back now. You're too far ahead," he whisper-shouted.
"It's alright, sir, there's nothing—"
The SQUADCOM went silent.
"Ricketts?" Carrol spoke into the SQUADCOM, trying in vain to get a response. "Do you read me, Ricketts? Ricketts, answer your damn radio!"
There was a five-second-long pause as we all held our breaths, listening for any sign of acknowledgment from Ricketts.
Carrol muttered something under his breath and turned back to the rest of us. "We are now minus one; Ricketts is down. Proceed with caution. Billings?"
"Sir?" the ill-tempered Billings grunted, happy as ever.
"You are now on point," Carrol said to him. "Take up our forward position and report any enemy movement. Try not to get yourself tagged, alright?"
Billings gave a single nod and tramped off into the woods.
It made me wince, watching him wade off through the shrubbery; the man was loud enough to wake the dead.
I could see the same thought going through Carrol's mind; no doubt this would be the last time Billings was ever asked to take point.
I exchanged another glance with Scotty Lowell.
He was extra jumpy today. His fingers drummed the same rhythm over and over against his carbine.
“You alright?” I whispered to him.
“Hm?” Lowell blinked twice rapidly. “Oh yeah, I’m good.”
He drummed his fingers a little faster.
"Sharpshooters, stay back," Carrol ordered us as we neared the creek. We could hear the sound of water trickling and flowing over the rocks, which told us that the creek was nearby. Seeing as Ricketts had been tagged at the creek, it was safe to assume that 1st Platoon was present as well. "Everyone else proceed with extreme caution. Billings, what is your position?"
"Billings, what is your position?" Carrol repeated himself. Still no response. "Billings, are you there?"
"Shit…" Dempsey muttered.
"We are minus two,” Carrol declared, snapping into action. “Worthington, Davis; secure our flank. Lowell, Garris; hold position here. Everyone else, on me!"
The rest of Bravo melted away into the trees, off to defend the creek, leaving Lowell and me in an oppressive silence.
"Carrol, it's Stisen," the scratchy tones of 2/A’s squad leader, issued from my helmets’ internal speakers. "What the hell is 1st Platoon playing at; I'm across the creek, but I haven't run into anything yet."
"They have men over here by the west perimeter," Carrol replied. "I’ve lost two already."
"Should we bring Charlie in?" Stisen asked.
"Charlie Squad is ready to go," Habel chimed in.
"No,” Carrol responded.“That would bunch us all up against the creek. It would be a turkey shoot.”
"Charlie will be isolated if you leave us too far behind," Habel reminded his Alpha and Bravo counterparts. “Both of you should pull back-”
The staccato popping of weaponsfire clattered through the sim zone, interrupting the squad leaders’ conversation.
Lowell and I heard shouting, interspersed with louder voices barking orders.
"What the hell's going on up there?" a shout came over the SQUADCOM. It was Davis on the right flank.
"Everyone fall back to Charlie Squad's position!" Carrol ordered us.
Hell, I wasn't waiting around to get shot; my ass was hightailing it out of there before Carrol even finished his transmission.
I could hear faintly Lowell panting behind me, the snapping of twigs underfoot.
My heartbeat pounded in my ears.
Lowell and I crashed through a lattice of twigs and stumbled into a small clearing, coming face-to-face with the barrels of five MA5 assault rifles.
"Don't shoot, don't shoot!” I screeched, lowering my carbine, holding up my free hand. “We’re from Bravo!"
"Kissinger! What is this?" a man strode into the clearing, his MA5 assault rifle at the ready. It was Ron Habel – I recognized his voice from the COM chatter earlier.
"They say they’re from Bravo, sir," Kissinger replied, gesturing to us with the barrel of his rifle. “I don’t recognize ‘em.”
Habel squinted at us. “Did they specify which Bravo?” he asked. “They could be from First Platoon, for all we know.”
“You don’t recognize us?” I asked, incredulous. “Are you serious? We’ve been in the same platoon for almost a month.”
Habel shrugged. “You must not talk very much. If you’re really from Second Platoon, then-”
“Stand down, Habel!” Carrol emerged from the trees, flanked by Worthington and Davis.
Dempsey hobbled into the clearing barely a second later, dragging his right leg behind him.
The five Charlie Squad recruits lowered their rifles.
"What’s happening up there, John?" Habel asked our squad leader.
"First Platoon got the jump on us," Carrol replied. “We need to get back to the hill.”
I quietly asked Dempsey where the rest of Bravo was.
"This is the rest of Bravo," Dempsey whispered. "Kaczynski, Omar, Rosen, and Hadley are down. I got hit in the leg." He flicked the small splatter of TTR paint on his paralyzed right leg. “I’m probably screwed.”
“We need to get Alpha back here,” Habel maintained. “We’ll rack up casualties fast if all of First Platoon converges on us. It would cost us the exercise.”
"What if we climbed the trees?" I spoke up. "Catch 1st Platoon in a crossfire from above?"
Carrol shook his head. "Not enough defilade in these trees to hide an entire squad. Although, it could hide three or four people…"
"You think we should post our sharpshooters here?" Habel asked, reading Carrol's mind.
Carrol nodded, turning back to me. "Garris, Lowell; climb these trees. I want you to move up with 1st Platoon when they come through. Make them bleed every time they try to pass you. Can you do that?"
"That's what I like to hear. Squad! On me!"
Carrol and Habel led Charlie and the remnants of Bravo back into the woods, heading for our hill.
Critchley and Werner – Charlie Squad’s sharpshooters – scaled the trees with Lowell and me.
We nestled as comfortably as possible into the thick leaves of the upper branches.
I shouldered my M6J and focused the ironsights, taking a moment to make sure I wasn’t going to fall out of the tree.
Then I waited for First Platoon to show.
They stole through the clearing quickly and steadily, fanned out, tense.
We waited until they were passing underneath our trees before opening fire.
I laid my sights on the back of a randomly selected First Platoon recruit and squeezed the trigger.
A splatter of red TTR paint blossomed in between the First Platoon recruit's shoulder-blades. He pitched forward and faceplanted, blissfully unconscious.
Adrenaline surged through my body.
Four more recruits were neutralized by Critchley, Werner, and Lowell before they even knew what was happening.
I adjusted my aim and fired at another recruit.
My shot went a little wide, clipping the recruit’s shoulder instead. His arm went limp, causing him to drop his rifle.
By now, First Platoon recovered from our surprise attack and were scrambling for cover.
They already knew the attack had come from trees. They would spot us if we lingered too long.
Time to move.
There was a cry off to my left as I shimmied down the tree trunk.
Werner fell out of his tree, three red TTR splatters decorating his chest.
I met up with Critchley on the ground. We looked for Lowell, but he was nowhere to be found. Probably got tagged.
"Find a new position!" Critchley ordered me. "We need to thin 'em out as much as possible before they reach the hill."
"Carrol, Habel, this is Stisen," my COM started to squawk as I made my way through the trees, fleeing from the concentrated fire of 1st Platoon. "I'm hearing gunfire from your side of the creek-"
I tuned out the chatter. It was a distraction.
My next hidey-hole was a nice little space tucked between the trunks of two large trees, camouflaged by the trees’ interlaced roots.
I heard Critchley fire off two shots, followed by a surge of shouts and retaliating weaponsfire.
Four recruits rushed through a hedge and into my line of fire, probably trying to flank Critchley.
I nudged my aim and opened fire.
The first reruit went down in a heap; I got him right in the stomach.
The second was hit on his right leg and arm, and although he was not completely incapacitated, he was unable to move effectively.
The third and fourth recruits dove to the side, avoiding my fire. I noticed they both wielded M6Js.
I fired at the third recruit as he hunkered behind a boulder, but my shot splattered against the rock.
It was time to move again, or risk getting pinned down.
I broke cover and sprinted away through the foliage, making my way south.
Something nudged the area around my tailbone, suddenly cutting off all feeling in my legs.
"Fuck!" I hit the ground hard, scrabbling about in the dirt, trying to get back to my feet, my lower back emblazoned with TTR paint. "Critchley?" I whispered desperately into my COM, "Critchley, you there? I’m hit! I can't move my legs!"
"Stay put and shut up," Critchley responded.
I obeyed without argument. Before too long, I heard crunching twigs and leaves as the two First Platoon sharpshooters drew near.
"…and you're sure you got him?" one of them was saying.
"Yeah, right in the ass," the other answered. "Come on, this way; he can't have gotten far."
"There's another one around here somewhere…could be Critchley," the first man cautioned. "We should be careful."
"Look, that's him!"
I quickly closed my eyes and played 'dead'. Maybe it would work. Either way, there was no way I could take both 1st Platoon sharpshooters out in my current state.
This was the only way.
I felt a boot prod me, but I still did not move a muscle.
"Looks like Garris," one of the sharpshooters observed.
"Let's double back," the other suggested. "Maybe we could knock out Critchley while-"
A sharp crack rang out through the air, followed one of the First Platoon sharpshooters collapsing unconscious on the ground.
Just as the second sharpshooter started to raise his weapon in the direction of the shot, I grabbed my carbine, aimed it, and squeezed off two rounds.
The first shot missed completely, but the second struck the sharpshooter in the side of his head. He dropped without a sound.
Critchley emerged from a clump of bushes a dozen meters away, slotting a fresh magazine into his carbine. "Nice shot," the ex-constable said to me. "We just took down Jenkins and Forsell – First Platoon's top marksmen."
"Give me a hand, would you?" I grunted, pushing myself into a sitting-up position. "Got TTR on my back. I can't move my legs."
"Here," Critchley crouched down in front of me, holding out his arms to the side.
"A piggy-back ride? You've got to be joking."
"I could always leave you here, if you want."
"Okay, okay…" I wrapped my left arm around the SWAT veteran's neck.
We headed south, back towards our hill. Critchley managed to keep up a brisk pace despite having to carry me.
We encountered another 1st Platoon recruit on the way back.
The recruit looked surprised to see us, so we didn't give him a chance to cry out.
Two TTR rounds – one from my carbine, the other from Critchley's – thwacked into the recruit’s chest, dropping him where he stood.
Most of First Platoon had slipped past us during our skirmish with Jenkins and Forsell. Judging by the sounds of discharging weapons coming from ahead, they already made contact with Charlie and Bravo.
I checked my COM as we neared the southern hill to see how many recruits were still up and running. My heart started to beat faster when I saw that my platoon had lost twenty-two men—no, twenty-three men, now.
If we lost one more, First Platoon won.
Finally, the firefight came into sight.
Bravo and Charlie were dug in further up the hillside, firing from behind the cover of boulders and downed logs. Although they seemed to be holding up, it was only a matter of time before one of them got hit and cost us the exercise.
This had to end now. That’s where Critchley and I come in.
"I'm going to take cover in between those two pines over there," Critchley motioned towards a pair of trees up ahead. "All we have to do is take out four recruits, Garris. We can do this."
"Damn right, we can," I agreed. Adrenaline began to pump as Critchley moved towards the trees. We were going to win this. We had to-
My thought was interrupted by no less than five TTR rounds splattering into my back.
Critchley was thrown off his feet by the force of the impacts, sending both of us tumbling to the ground.
I could faintly hear Critchley screaming, "Stisen, you fucking idiot!"
Didn’t even notice myself losing consciousness.